Saturday, September 17, 2011

Let There Be Light

In his curtain speech last night at the Norman and Annette Rothstein Theatre--where Patrick Street Productions' mounting of Adam Guettel and Craig Lucas' The Light in the Piazza is in previews (it opens next week and runs until October 9th)--director Peter Jorgensen said they were still tweaking things. One would be hard pressed to see what more needs tweaking, so flawless is virtually every aspect of this production.

The Light in the Piazza was first developed as a co-production between Seattle's Intiman Theatre (where, before its recent troubles, Lucas was for a time an artistic associate) and Chicago's Goodman Theatre before moving on to Broadway in 2005 in a production directed by Bartlett Sher that won several Tony Awards. The musical is based on the 1962 MGM film starring Olivia de Havilland, Rossano Brazzi, and a young George Hamilton, which was in turn based on the novel by Elizabeth Spenser. The story concerns an American mother and daughter, Margaret and Clara Johnson, traveling in Florence in the 1950s. There they encounter a young Florentine, Fabrizio Naccarelli, who is immediately smitten with Clara. Clara returns Fabrizio's attentions, but Margaret is determined to put an end to the liaison as she fears that Fabrizio will discover that the 25 year old Clara's luminous innocence and pure joy with life is in part related to her mental handicap, a childhood brain injury having left her with the emotional and developmental skills of a 12 year old. However, after Margaret meets Fabrizio's family and has a chance to observe the blossoming relationship between the two young lovers, she changes her mind and starts to believe (much to the fury of her husband, Roy, who has remained at home in the States) that marriage to Fabrizio might be Clara's one true chance at happiness.

Not the typical stuff for a sunny Broadway musical, but then the piece is arguably more akin to an intimate chamber opera (and this cast's voices are up to that challenge), complete with a string heavy score and largely recitative lyrics (the only place the work falls down in my mind, with Guettel too often substituting rhyme, or words of any kind for that matter, with sung scales or even humming). Lucas' book manages the tricky feat of being at once utterly sincere and wisely knowing, with several witty asides delivered directly to the audience letting us in on the thoughts of the women in particular, especially Margaret and, in the second act's memorable opening number, "Aiutami," Signora Naccarelli. Indeed, although on some levels The Light in the Piazza operates as a fairly conventional love story, Lucas manages not only to imbue the entire proceedings with a proto-feminist tone (in addition to Margaret's and Signora Naccarelli's musings on their feckless husbands, we also have daughter-in-law Franca's despair over the wandering eye of Giuseppe, Fabrizio's older brother), but also some subtle queer cynicism about the happy-ever-after of heterosexual romance: see, again, Franca's Act 1 lament, "The Joy You Feel."

All of these complexities are brought wonderfully, impeccably to life by the PSP cast and crew. The performances are, without exception, superb. As Clara, Samantha Hill not only has a soaring soprano, but an eager expressiveness in her face and body that manages to convey her character's as yet undimmed sense of wonder and openness to new experiences, including love. By contrast, one of the marvels of Katey Wright's performance as Margaret is seeing how her steely outward protectiveness toward her daughter masks serious internal misgivings and regrets about her own happiness, and how both are slowly transformed as she awakens not just to Clara's joy but to Signor Naccarelli's charms. To this end, Wright's Act 2 reprise of "The Beauty Is," a song sung by Clara in the Uffizi in Act 1 as she is stirred by all the gorgeous art works around her, is at once shattering and soul-stirring. All of the Naccarellis nail not only their spoken Italian accents, but their sung ones as well. Kudos especially in this regard to Adrian Marchuk as the lovestruck Fabrizio; his Act 1 solo, "Il Mondo Era Vuoto," demonstrates, both vocally and gesturally, just how truly gripped by Cupid's arrow our hero is. As Signor Naccarelli, the amazing David Adams brings just the right combination of old-world charm and gravitas to the patriarch who is not above doing some romancing of his own. Heather Pawsey and Dana Luccock, as Signora and Franca Naccarelli, respectively, have smaller roles, but each makes her presence keenly felt when on stage and both get moments in the spotlight to display their operatic pipes. As the comic lothario Giuseppe, Daren Herbert doesn't get a musical solo, but he does get the evening's only dance one, and he makes the most of it.

The orchestra, under the direction of pianist Sean Bayntun, are on a raised platform upstage throughout the performance, and they were perfectly in synch with each other, and with the performers, throughout. A simple, moveable set of frames designed by Lance Cardinal successfully conveys the multiple perspectives of and on display in the work, and Alan Brodie's subtle backlighting of many of them helps bring this out even further. Finally, a standing ovation for costume designer Jessica Dmytryshyn, whose tailored dresses and suits perfectly capture the glamourous world of postwar Italy. The shoes worn by the brothers Naccarelli are alone worth the price of admission.

All of this is brought to life under the assured and even-handed direction of Jorgensen, who highlights the sentiment without overplaying it, and who keeps things moving in real theatrical time while somehow managing to transport us into the dreamtime of Clara and Fabrizio's impossibly possible romance.

Go see this show with someone you love.


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